“Many of the hotel staff felt terrible guilt over what was being done to Harry. The housekeeper, in particular. At one point she noticed that she hadn’t seen the child in two days, and she went looking for him. He had been locked in his room with no food . . . Arthur had been so busy, he had forgotten to let him out. And Harry was only five.”
“No one had heard him crying? Hadn’t he made any noise?” Poppy asked unsteadily.
Catherine looked down at the ferret, stroking him compulsively. “The cardinal rule of the hotel was never to bother the guests. It had been drilled into him since birth. So he waited quietly, hoping someone would remember him, and come for him.”
“Oh, no,” Poppy whispered.
“The housekeeper was so horrified,” Catherine continued, “that she managed to find out where Nicolette had gone, and she wrote letters describing the situation in the hopes that they might send for him. Anything, even living with a mother like Nicolette, would be better than the terrible isolation that was imposed on Harry.”
“But Nicolette never sent for him?”
“Not until much later, when it was too late for Harry. Too late for everyone, as it turned out. Nicolette took ill with a wasting disease. It was a long, slow decline, but when the end approached, it progressed quickly. She wanted to see what had become of her son before she died, and so she wrote asking him to come. He left for London on the next available ship. He was an adult by then, twenty years of age or so. I don’t know what his motives for seeing his mother were. No doubt he had many questions. I suspect there was always an uncertainty in his mind, as to whether she had left because of him.” She paused, momentarily preoccupied with her own thoughts. “Most often, children blame themselves for how they are treated.”
“But it wasn’t his fault,” Poppy exclaimed, her heart wrenched with compassion. “He was only a little boy. No child deserves to be abandoned.”
“I doubt anyone has ever said as much to Harry,” Catherine said. “He won’t discuss it.”
“What did his mother say when he found her?”
Catherine looked away for a moment, seeming unable to speak. She stared at the curled-up ferret in her lap, stroking his sleek fur. Eventually she managed to reply in a strained voice, her gaze still averted. “She died the day before he reached London.” Her fingers twined into a tight basket. “Forever eluding him. I suppose to Harry, any hope of finding answers, any hope of affection, died along with her.”
The three women were silent.
Poppy was overwhelmed.
What would it do to a child, to be raised in such a barren and loveless environment? It must have seemed as if the world itself had betrayed him. What a cruel burden to carry.
I will never love you, she had told him on their wedding day. And his reply . . .
I’ve never wanted to be loved. And God knows no one’s done it yet.
Poppy closed her eyes sickly. This was not a problem to be solved in a conversation, or in a day, or even a year. This was a wound to the soul.
“I wanted to tell you before,” she heard Catherine say. “But I was afraid it might have inclined you more strongly in Harry’s favor. You’ve always been so easily moved to compassion. And the truth is, Harry won’t ever want your sympathy, and probably not your love. I don’t think it likely that he can become the kind of husband you deserve.”
Poppy looked at her through tear-hazed eyes. “Then why are you telling me this?”
“Because even though I’ve always believed that Harry is incapable of love, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve never been sure about anything regarding Harry.”
“Miss Marks—” Poppy began, and checked herself. “Catherine. What is the association between you and he? How is it that you know all this about him?”
A curious series of expressions crossed Catherine’s face . . . anxiety, sorrow, pleading. She began to tremble visibly, until the ferret in her lap awoke and hiccupped.
As the silence drew out, Poppy threw a questioning glance at Amelia, who gave her a subtle nod as if to say, Be patient.
Catherine removed her spectacles and polished the perspiration-misted edges of the lenses. Her entire face had gone damp with nervousness, the fine skin gleaming with the luster of a pearl. “A few years after Nicolette came to England with her paramour,” she said, “she had another child. A daughter.”
Poppy was left to make the connection on her own. She found herself pressing her knuckles gently against her mouth. “You?” she eventually managed to get out.
Catherine lifted her face, the spectacles still in her hand. A poetic, fine-boned face, but there was something direct and decisive in the lovely symmetry of her features. Yes, there was something of Harry in that face. And a quality in her reserve that spoke of deep-trammeled emotions.
“Why have you never mentioned it?” Poppy asked, bewildered. “Why hasn’t my husband? Why is your existence a secret?”
“It’s for my protection. I took a new name. No one can ever know why.”
There was much more Poppy wanted to ask, but it seemed Catherine Marks had reached the limits of her tolerance. Murmuring another apology beneath her breath, and another, she stood and set the sleepy ferret onto the rug. Snatching up her discarded shoe, she left the room. Dodger shook himself awake and followed her instantly.
Left alone with her sister, Poppy contemplated the little pile of tarts on the nearby table. A long silence passed.